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Wed 9 Jan 2008 10:11 AM

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Bombings planned for Bush's arrival

US President en route to Middle East amid spiking tensions with Iran and violent protests and threats.

US President George W. Bush left Tuesday evening to take his drive for Middle East peace to the volatile region where he faces protests and spiking tensions with Iran.

Bush left on Air Force One for his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank, aiming to seek a foreign-policy triumph in his last year in office, and to shore up US allies in the face of what Bush calls the Iranian nuclear "threat."

There is widespread skepticism in the Arab world of Bush's chances of achieving any real breakthrough in efforts to reach a peace deal, amid criticism that Washington is too partial to the whims of its key ally, Israel.

Threats of violence, particularly a call by US member of Al-Qaeda "Azzam the American" who urged Al-Qaeda followers to greet "the butcher Bush ... not with flowers and applause, but with bombs and car bombs," sent Israeli and Palestinian authorities scrambling to set up a massive security operation.

In Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, snipers were posted on rooftops and entire city blocks sealed off.

After talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Bush was to complete his Mideast tour with stops in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia before ending in Egypt on January 16.

After Pentagon reports that Iranian speedboats Sunday swarmed around three US navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz, radioing a threat to blow them up, Bush renewed his verbal assault on Iran.

"I am there to reassure and to look people in the eye and say, I believe Iran is a threat; we have a strategy to deal with it; and we want to work with you," Bush told the Arabic television station Al-Arabiya.

"I believe we can solve this diplomatically," he said. "On the other hand ... all options must be on the table in order to make sure diplomacy is effective."

Iran's government played down the incident as an "ordinary occurrence" in the strait, a crucial choke point for world energy supplies with about 20-25 percent of the world's crude oil supplies passing through from Gulf states.

However, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Iran "is certainly not the main reason for the trip. The main reason for the trip is to advance these negotiations and make sure that those are on the right track, as well as to talk about the president's commitment to the region."

Amid the heightened tensions, US ally Kuwait expressed anxiety about Bush's stated aim of building on the momentum of a Middle East peace conference held in the US city of Annapolis in November when Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to strive for a comprehensive agreement by the end of 2008.

"Kuwaitis are worried that Bush's visit could be to apply pressure on Kuwait and the region to win their support for a military strike against Iran," health ministry employee Sami al-Mani told AFP.

Both Syria, which has been in Washington's sights over allegations that it was fomenting unrest in Iraq and meddling in Lebanon, and ally Iran were hostile to the US presidential visit.

"Bush has proclaimed his intention to contain ... Iran. In reality he wants to modify priorities in the Middle East and erase the consequences of Israeli aggression," said the official Syrian newspaper Tishrin.

And in Iran, foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the visit smacked of "interference" and "propaganda."

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June after routing forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and is regarded as a terrorist group by Israel and the West, said flatly that Bush was not welcome.

"Hamas and the Palestinian people do not expect a single thing from this visit, considering American policies completely favor the Israelis," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Gaza Tuesday, waving large pictures of Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with the word "Terrorist" written under them.

The peace negotiations, revived at a US conference in Annapolis in November, have stumbled over the issue of Jewish settlements on occupied land and intensifying Israeli assaults against militants in Gaza.

Abbas has repeatedly said that negotiations cannot succeed unless Israel halts settlement activity, and Bush described them as a "problem" in another interview given ahead of his trip.

Israeli settlements on Arab land captured in the 1967 Six Day War - all considered illegal by the international community - are one of the most contentious issues of the decades-old Middle East conflict.

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